Montana Voices: State’s outdated liquor laws hold back restaurants
The current state of the Montana liquor and gaming licensing limitations continues to impede the growth of the food industry in our state. The Montana Tavern Association seems to do all it can to limit the number of liquor licenses available in the state.
We need to look into the completely archaic Montana liquor and gaming board practices and the fact that the larger chains and gas stations pay upwards of $1 million for a license. We need to look into the banks that make money funding such investments.
Something needs to change.
The gas stations of Montana own more liquor licenses than any other establishments in the state; this has led to a state full of gas stations where you can gamble, eat fried food and drink all day.
Meanwhile, the neighboring restaurant that has persevered for years with a beer and wine license, must sit back and wait for a liquor license to become available or pay the extremely inflated going rate to purchase or trade a license. The laws have to change.
The industry in this state is very seasonal, which makes it hard to run a restaurant efficiently. The limits the state put on us make it even harder to deliver good food at a good price. Montana is not a chef-friendly state. The restaurants here need more year-round revenue to pay staff a competitive wage. Only this will encourage them to want to work the hard hours required by the business.
Chefs need to see there are jobs here, that there is a competitive market and exciting food scene. Montana will fall behind if the governor doesn’t step in and take a close look at revising the laws and dismantling the gaming and liquor board.
With the advent of the Food Network, with such shows as “Chopped,” “Top Chef” and “Iron Chef,” people are traveling to beautiful destinations just for the food. Montana needs to keep up with states like Oregon, where free market reigns true and the industry is booming and very competitive. Tourists flock to Portland for its foodie scene, why not Montana?
Why are the liquor and gaming boards basically the same agency? Why would Montana want to promote drunken gambling instead of a great night out at a local restaurant enjoying locally grown food? Why should restaurants suffer at the expense of the requirements set for gambling establishments? Why are restaurants subject to an almost dictatorial control from an alcohol system designed to prevent bootlegging during prohibition?
Why do we still have to follow a lot of outdated rules that only hurt the homegrown restaurant businesses and the growth of an industry that is trying to define Montana culture? How can we counter the lobbyists and lawyers that back the money-minded people that have interests in keeping the laws intact?
You would think the state government would want to help fund growth in the industry instead of crimping it with old legislation. The cabaret license law needs to be amended to include liquor. The Montana quota system needs to go.
Chris DiMaio is executive chef of Three Forks Grille in Columbia Falls.